For jockeys, Preakness prep is a mix of study and superstition

Jockey Jonathan Joyce prays for safety and running a good race before every race he has a mount in.
Jockey Jonathan Joyce prays for safety and running a good race before every race he has a mount in. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Maryland-based jockey Mario Pino says he once heard that the great race rider Laffit Pincay would wear his underwear inside out. For luck.

Ramon Dominguez, Eclipse Award-winning jockey the last two years, likes to have Perrier water and animal crackers in his jockey room stall. And he puts his left boot on first. Always.

They call horse racing the fastest two minutes in sports, but a jockey's preparation begins the night before and continues until the moment the starting gates clang open. That preparation is a mix of study and superstition, of time-management and personality quirks, from the Racing Form to rosary beads, from a lucky whip to a bunch of film clips.

"They are professional athletes and they are businessmen," said Richie Ramkhelawan. A valet — "equipment manager" is a better description — for more than 20 years, he will have six or seven jockeys and 14 races to juggle on Preakness day, and in the 20 minutes between races, he must pull together saddles, silks, head gear and goggles. "These guys know what they have to do," he said.

"And while they are out doing it, we clean up the mess they made getting ready," added Donald Cusick, who has been working for jockeys for 47 years. "It's like having kids around."

Between races, the jockeys will not only switch silks, they will clean boots and helmets and rinse the track dirt from their faces in their personal "face buckets." Under their silks, jockeys wear vented Kevlar vests for protection. And three or four pairs of goggles rest on their helmets — they flip the dirty ones down their necks and a fresh pair over their eyes so quickly and without thinking that none can tell you precisely how they do it.

But the real preparation for the day's races actually began the night before. At the end of a race day, the next day's tentative program is published and the jockeys begin right away to research their mounts and their competition. They might watch film of previous races or study the statistics of their past performances.

Jockeys use this information, combined with the position they are assigned for the start, to calculate a rough race plan, almost like a video in their heads.

But not every pre-race ritual makes this much sense.

When NBC commentator Gary Stevens was riding his superstar mounts, Derby winner Winning Colors in 1988 or Point Given, on whom he won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 2001, "I would change everything, from the underwear on out, for those horses. What I wore, I wore for those horses and only those horses."

His mount Silver Charm, who came within a whisker of winning the Triple Crown in 1997, had his own saddle and when the horse retired, Stevens retired the saddle, too.

"It was lucky," explained Stevens, who starred in the movie "Seabiscuit," playing the role of jockey George Woolf.

If a rider tries a new stick, or whip, and goes several races without a win, the stick will suddenly disappear. Another rider will never take the ramp — only the steps — to the paddock at Laurel Race Course.

Donna Barton Brothers, the most decorated woman jockey of her generation, says Mike Smith once told her that as a young rider, he would flush three toilets in the jockeys' room before each race. "He is good enough now that he doesn't have to do that anymore," she said.

Smith, who will ride favorite Bodemeister in the Preakness, confessed with an embarrassed laugh. "But that was more OCD than superstition," he said. "I started to feel like I ought to pay part of the water bill."

Stevens says he wouldn't look at his mount before he was given a leg up. "I'd find the trainer or the owners and talk to them," he said. "Never look at the horse."

Brothers, who will conduct the post-Preakness interview with the winning jockey for NBC while on horseback, confided that when she was riding, she thought losing was divine retribution for bad behavior.

"I remember thinking that if I didn't behave — if I thought badly about somebody — then I wouldn't win. It was punishment.

"It was only after I quit being a jockey that I realized that God didn't really have me in mind all the time."

If He didn't, it might be because all the other jockeys were tying up the line.

"A lot of times I cross myself," said Pino, Maryland's all-time leading winner. "And I ask for protection not only for me but for everyone."

The post parade is the second opportunity for a jockey to study his mount as well as the field of competitors. It is then that the horses leap to life from the small print of the Racing Form.

"That's the part of the job that is fascinating," said Dominguez, who was raised in Maryland and was the top rider in the state last year with 126 wins. "This might be the first and only time you have been on the horse. You have a few minutes to interact and to know the horse the best you can.

"If they are head-strong or drifting in or out, you can begin to tell. You gather and process the most information you can."

Jockeys might also take the measure of the favorite or the speed horse or the horse they intended to follow.

If Brothers' own horse felt off, or unsound, she would kick him away from his pony and go past the vet and silently solicit his opinion. That, she said, is why she never runs her hands, or her eyes, over the horse in the paddock. It would not only be an insult to the trainer, but "looking at the horse is not the way to find out."

Sheldon Russell, 24, who rode in his first Preakness last year and in his first Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, loves riding horses so much that he regularly works them for free in the mornings and likes to break away from the ponies and see what he has under him.

"You want to know if he is ready. You want to know if he has had his coffee. If you turn the horse loose, you can get a rough idea of what to expect when the gate opens."

That's what it comes down to, after all. The reading, the films, the special whip, the sign of the cross. The leg up on a 1,000-pound stranger.

The crowd will be large and loud as the horses load for the start of the Preakness Saturday. But the jockey is in a soundless bubble in the seconds before a big race.

He rocks in his saddle to make sure his mount is standing on four legs instead of three, or two. He points the horse's head forward and grabs a handful of mane and pulls up the racing plan he has in his head. The next sound a jockey hears is the clang of the gates and the muffled thunder of horses' hooves.

"It is like a major league batter when they are in the zone," said Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey and one of People's most beautiful people. "They say they can see the threads on the baseball, that they can see its rotation. That everything is moving in slow motion."

The break from the gate and the first three strides of a race can throw a jockey's best race plan into a cocked hat.

"You see how your horse breaks and you bring all your experience to make decisions," said Brothers.

"You ask yourself, 'Is he OK?' And then you ask yourself, 'What was Plan B?'"


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